Erotic: New & Selected, a poetry collection by Alexis Rhone Fancher, reviewed by Deborah Bacharach

Dangerous. Transgressive. In Erotic: New & Selected, Alexis Rhone Fancher brings together two previous collections, How I Lost My Virginity to Michael Cohen (2014) and Enter Here (2017), with new photos and poems all focused on sex. It’s not just a story of one couple, one betrayal, one ménage-a-trois. Erotic: New & Selected is a full-frontal exploration.

I tried to make a list of all the types of sex Rhone Fancher explores in this book: abusive, adolescent, unsanctioned, boring, betraying, cruel, dangerous, debauched, dirty, drunk, ecstatic, exhibitionist, fantasy, forced, fulfilling, group, incestuous, kind, loving, married, masturbatory, powerful, pre-adolescent, respectful, rule abiding, rule breaking, shocking, tender, threatening, transgressive, trickster, unfulfilling, violent, voyeuristic, wanton. No wonder the book is 144 pages. That’s a lot to cover.

In “The First Time I Made Cousin Lisa Come” the sexual partners are two pre-adolescent girls. The speaker says:

I’d suck. She moan. I’d explore. She’d explode.
It was the most powerful I’d ever be.

The first time I made cousin Lisa come
we looked into each other’s aloneness; the boys

who didn’t want us yet, the girls who shunned us
like they saw something we didn’t.

when I let myself remember:
Me, on my knees, between the beds,

the feast of Lisa spread before me,
her steady rocking against my wrist

The rug burn that my knees endured
A penance, prepaid.

As I typed in this poem, I felt uncomfortable, perhaps because it is such a vivid and direct look at a sex act, but mostly because it is such a direct and vivid look at hearts. These girls look “into each other’s aloneness.” Rhone Fancher has reframed sex between preteen girl cousins—taboo on many levels—as a moment of connection, power, and penance. She has taken the narrative away from the voyeur and given it to the actors.

The speaker in these poems often claims herself as a bad girl. In “Polaroid SX-70 Land Camera,” a speaker says:

I sat on the cold metal stool at the counter, legs crossed, black skirt riding up my thighs. It was a long way from Shangri La. Fenders and transmissions littered the floor, tools hung on pegs nailed into the walls, and half rebuilt engines balanced on benches and worktops. Every surface was covered with a layer of greasy dust that mingled with Wayne’s ever-present cigarette and made the air heavy and hard to breathe. What was it about these sleazy places? I felt sick. My stomach bottomed out with that familiar, crazy swirling. Sickening, but still I craved it. Bad girl with a bad habit. Very very bad.

The context itself is literally dirty, littered, unbalanced, difficult to breathe in—symbolic of the speaker’s internal conflict. She finds the desire sickening, and she craves it. Rhone Fancher moves the sentences from complete to fragments that get shorter and shorter. The syntax reflects a speaker who has left a grounded reality and become untethered in an ugly self-judgment: “Very, very, bad.”

In many of these poems sexual desires are celebrated but in others, like this one, the pain and danger of sex are laid bare.

A fifteen-page section in the middle of the book, shows sisters in deep conflict around sex. I found this section painful to read because over and over the sisters fail and betray each other. And yet, they also rescue each other. Of a rape, a speaker says, in “Double Date: The Quarterback, The Fullback, & the High Cost of Dinner”:

You lay there and took it for your sister.
You thought about her delicate spine,
believing if you played it wrong
he might snap her like a sparrow.

The sister poems are like a story where I care about the characters and the stakes are high.

The poetry in Erotic: New & Selected is blunt, direct, full of anatomical details but also romance and heartbreak. Or, as Rhone Fancher announces in the prose poem “This Is NOT a Poem”:

This is NOT a poem. Bam! This is an assault to your senses, a rape of your status quo . . . This is NOT a poem. It’s an anthem, a declaration of noncompliance, a liberation proclamation . . . Be grateful for second chances. Don’t push too hard. I might surprise you. You’ll see, I’m tougher than I look: I eat Bukowski for breakfast.

When the speaker says, “This is NOT a poem” I hear “this is not what you expect a poem to be” When the speaker says, “This is NOT a poem” I hear “this is not what you expect a woman to be: rule abiding or punished for being bad.” By challenging Bukowski, the speaker reminds us that the world of sex is part of poetry and women can claim it too. And oh my, she does.

Erotic: New & Selected, by Alexis Rhone Fancher. NYQ Books, March 2021. 144 pages. $21.00, paper.

Deborah Bacharach is the author of two full length poetry collections, Shake & Tremor (Grayson Books, 2021) and After I Stop Lying (Cherry Grove Collections, 2015). Her poems, book reviews, and essays have been published in journals nationally and internationally, including Poetry Ireland ReviewNew Letters, and Poet LoreDeborahBacharach.com.

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